Summer 2024 /Global Pomona/

Testing Climate Change Messaging Through Behavioral Science

Associate Professor of Psychological Science Adam Pearson.

Associate Professor of Psychological Science Adam Pearson.

How effective are different messaging styles aimed at boosting climate awareness and action?

Is a “doom and gloom” approach best? What about emphasizing scientific consensus on climate change? Or considering the consequences of climate change in one’s region?

Associate Professor of Psychological Science Adam Pearson recently was part of a global team of 250 behavioral scientists who tested a set of strategies on more than 59,000 participants in 63 countries—the largest experiment ever conducted on climate change behavior.

The main findings of the study were published in Science Advances in February.

“Scientists, journalists and advocacy groups often emphasize different facets of the problem—the dangers of climate change, its outsized effects on young people, the overwhelming scientific consensus that it’s human-caused,” Pearson says. “But what works on a global scale? What motivates people around the world to address a global problem like climate change? We don’t actually have an answer to that question.

“To understand what mobilizes people to address a problem like climate change, we really need to move beyond the United States and beyond Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies,” Pearson says.

To do that, the team tested 11 messages designed to boost people’s climate beliefs and behavior, conducting the study in more than 60 countries. The results included many surprises, allowing researchers to see what works—and for whom.

Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from the study, not unexpectedly, is that different people respond differently to various climate messages, with responses varying across countries.

To share their findings, the research team created an open-access web app, which allows users to see the effects of the strategies along dimensions such as nationality, income level, political ideology, education and gender.

Pearson says he hopes tools like these can help practitioners tailor climate messages for different audiences, as well as spark additional research.

Pearson’s scholarly background is in the study of group dynamics as well as the psychology of inequality. About 10 years ago, he became interested in the social psychological research around climate change. “There’s a growing understanding that human behavior is at the root of this problem,” he says.

“We’ve been increasingly thinking about climate changes not as a problem of one climate but two climates: our physical climate and the social climate of any given area. We need to understand how those climates intersect. That’s where behavioral science comes into the equation,” he says.

“It’s a big collective action problem,” Pearson says, “and that requires coordination, including among researchers.”

A Letter to a Child

The most effective strategy globally for increasing support for climate policy was imagining writing a letter explaining one’s climate actions today to a child one knows who would receive the letter 25 years later. Similarly effective was imagining oneself in the future writing a letter to one’s current self, asking questions about what actions one took or what one was thinking at the time. “These messages shrink the time scale of climate change. They remind us that our actions today matter and will impact people we know, in our families and communities,” Pearson says.

Negative Messaging

“Doom and gloom” messaging, however, decreased people’s pro-environmental behavior. These stories were highly effective in getting people to share information about climate change on social media but backfired for climate skeptics, reducing their support for a range of climate policies.